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grilled meats of turkey

Midye dolmasi vendor Fried mussels
Midye dolmasi vendor Midye Dolmasi

Midye dolmasi and midye tava on Istanbul streets

As travelers, we often don't get to celebrate holidays the way we would back at home in the States.  Last year's Thanksgiving was spent at a French hotel near the Eurotunnel rather than at home with my favorite apple pie .  This year's Christmas was in London where we made up our own British feast replete with a Christmas pudding for us and a Christmas pudding for the dogs .  And, today, on July 4th, we're in Italy where Patrick's going to make some improvisational sandwiches with sheep's milk ricotta and bufala mozzarella, instead of our usual hamburger and veggie burgers grilled on the barbeque.

But, for those of you who can't fathom the 4th (or any other day for that matter) without a hunk of beef, this post on the grilled meats of Turkey is for you.  (Veggie readers, don't worry: I'm following up this post with a Vegetarian Turkish cuisine post and there'll be lots of yummy goodness for you in that one.)


Kofte kebab

Why meat?

Before we start talking about types of grilled meat found commonly in Turkey, let's delve a tiny bit into Turkey's food history.  Until around the 2nd century B.C., the region we know as Turkey was occupied by the ancient Greeks, who created powerful and important cities such as Ephesus, Smyrna (now Izmir), and Byzantium (later Constantinople and now Istanbul).  The ancient Greeks subsisted primarily on a vegetarian and seafood diet, eating meat only on feast days and for special occasions, and the ancient Romans had a similar diet.

As the Greek and Roman civilizations began to fall, the Turkmen from Turkmenistan/Central Asia came into modern-day Turkey.  Unlike the Greeks and Romans who settled and built huge cities with massive agricultural farms, the Turkmen were ancient herders and nomads.  They were masters at animal husbandry, at maintaining huge flocks of animals, and migrating those animals through mountains and plains every year.  Unsurprisingly, the Turkmen ate a whole lot of animal products such as meat, milk, yogurt, and cheese, because those products were readily available, unlike vegetables which required them to be settled in one place.

When the Turkmen began settling in villages in Anatolia, social hierarchy was demonstrated by who got to eat certain portions of a roast sheep at feast days.  Each person had an ulus , or reserved share, of the roast sheep and that share was based upon the bravery and deeds of his/her forefather though a tribal member could increase their share by performing brave deeds on their own.  People punished for bad acts lost their share to the roast sheep and also lost their rights to grazing land and pasturage.   In other words, among the Turks, food was not just a means of sustenance but rather it was the means by which a person's importance was measured.  ( source )

Cig kofte

Cig kofte

(Interestingly, even today, as it was thousands of years ago, meat plays an important role in family traditions.  Suzan with Context Istanbul mentioned that the men in her town in southeast Anatolia cannot marry until they can make cig kofte properly.  They must squish and knead raw meat between their fingers until it literally cooks and forms a thick paste.  Once "cooked," the men will take a mound of the cig kofte to the local hamam (Turkish bath) and throw the cig kofte up to the ceiling.  If the cig kofte sticks to the ceiling then the man has enough muscle to marry the woman but, if not, then he must try again.  Suzan said that her father passed this test as have all of her uncles in the town.)

Bagran Bagran

Beyran corbasi at Ehli

These nomadic Turkmen also cut chunks of meat into stews and soups, the perfect meal when on the move ( much like the Hungarian herdsmen ), and even today, soup is an integral part of Turkish cuisine.  The soup pictured above is beyran corbasi, a soup from the famed Gazantiep region of Turkey --- known across Turkey as the best place to get Turkish food (and, yes, we desperately want to go there).  Beyran is traditionally drunk for breakfast in that region but Patrick would have Ehli's beyran corbasi morning, noon, and night if it was up to him.  He says that this soup is the best soup he's ever had in the world.  The soup sounds simple: suet, white rice, slow-cooked lamb strands, broth made from a lamb's neck, a hefty spoonful of garlic and pepper.  But, the sum of its part is something exceptional: the depth of the soup goes beyond one single ingredient so that every spoonful yields a slightly different taste, flavor, and experience.  At first, the broth is rich and deep, and then the spice hits the tongue, and finally the tender meat and rice melt into a satisfying I-want-this-when-I-have-a-chest-cold comfort.  It's the sort of dish that we could easily imagine some millennia-old nomadic sheepherder creating over a fire after a long day's work on the Turkish hills.

So, unlike many other ancient food traditions such as the Romans, Greeks, and Dravidians, meat was an essential part of the daily diet of the ancient Turks, which is why it's impossible to talk about Turkish food without talking about its grilled meats.

Doner kebab

Slicing a doner kebab

On kebabs and grilling

In the 9th century, the Selcuks from Persia invaded the region and set up an empire in eastern Anatolia.  These people brought with them the tradition of kebabs.  Kebab literally means "small pieces."  The Selcuks cut pieces of meat from an animal and cooked that meat in pieces, either wrapped in a skin or on skewers over a flame.  The Selcuks also cleaned the interior of animals and hung the whole animal on spits to slowly cook them.  ( source )

We heard many Turks complain that kebabs are not "actually Turkish" and that the modern fervor for kebab houses is ruining traditional Anatolian cuisine.  But, since the 9th century and up to today, kebabs have played an integral role in Turkish cuisine and might be what Turkish cuisine is best known for.  So, let's do a quick run down on a few types of kebabs (because you could spend a lifetime eating in Turkey and never eat all the different types of kebabs ):

Doner kebab Doner kebab

Doner kebab

Doner kebab

The doner kebab, or literally "rotating kebab", consists of meat from beef or lamb interspersed with slices of fat that rotates on a spit.  The fat melts over the layers of meat as it cooks over a slow fire, which is why good doner kebab usually drips at the bottom.  Doner kebab is so popular that when the Ottomans took over present-day Greece, the Greeks adopted the doner kebab into their own gyro.

When served in Turkey, doner kebab is never given with sauce because the meat itself has so much flavor.  A doner kebab is usually sold directly on the streets with a plate with vegetables, on bread to carry away, or on lavash (similar to pita.)  For lunch, it's typical to stop at a doner kebab stall and grab a sandwich but, at dinner, the doner kebab is usually served with vegetable mezes.

As with most things, finding "your" doner kebab stand can be tricky --- but is essential to eating well.  Patrick found one in Istanbul on the Asian side and one in Turgutreis (locations below), but doner kebab stands are a dime a dozen.  The easiest way to find a good one is to follow where the locals go to eat lunch.

Patlican kebab Patlican kebab
Patlican kebab Patlican kebab

Patlican kebab at Urfali Haci Usta

Patlican kebab (and sis kebab, in general)

Sis kebab is probably what most Americans think about when they think of kebabs, because sis kebabs are what we normally put on the grill.  Essentially, a sis kebab combines pieces of meat with vegetables over a very high open flame.

A patlican kebab is eggplant cut into chunks and wedged between chunks of meat until the eggplant is cooked through.  To eat it, you mash the eggplant with a fork onto the lavash bread and pile the meat on top.

Adana kebab

Adana kebab

Adana kebab

The adana kebab is hand-minced beef or lamb wrapped around a wide metal skewer and cooked over a charcoal flame.  The adana kebab from the fifth largest city of Adana.

Testi kebab testi kebab

Testi kebab

In this variety of kebab, popularly found in the central Anatolia region, pieces of meat and vegetables are stewed together in a ceramic pot over a slow charcoal fire.  Unfortunately, we found this version to be a bit bland because the ceramic pot sucks out the flavor of the meat and vegetables.

Tavuk gogsu

Ottoman cuisine

Tovuk gogsu and zire-ba

On Ottoman cuisine and sweets with meat

When the Ottoman emperors took over in the 13th century, Turkish food changed faces again, becoming more refined and with greater usage of vegetables, grains, and fruits.  But, meat was always at the center of the Ottoman table.   The Ottoman cooks were particularly known for their propensity to mix sweet flavors with hearty meats.

Tovuk gogsu, which is a chicken milk pudding, made with shredded chicken breast, milk, and lots of sugar, tastes like a sweet pudding and its hard to even recognize the meat in it.  The zire-ba Patrick tried at an Ottoman cuisine restaurant similarly was lamb baked with apricots, raisins, honey, and almonds.

Where to eat meat in Istanbul

This is, of course, just a small sampling of the many insanely wonderful places to eat meat in Istanbul but here's a few spots that we particularly liked:

  • Sahan is a kebab chain with branches in various spots primarily on the Asian side of Istanbul.  They're a bit more upscale but serve excellent adana kebabs and a good variety of vegetarian mezes.
  • Matbah Restaurant is one of the most popular spots to enjoy the imperial Ottoman cuisine.  We found the food to be good though it is a bit overpriced.
  • Sampiyon Kokorec, a chain found all over the city, serves up good kokorec (meat stuffed into intestines and served like a sausage) and the midye dolmasi (or mussels stuffed with rice) pictured at the very top of this post.
  • Istanbul Eats is the best resource out there for food-obsessed travelers to Istanbul and, while I was munching happily at Umbria this last April , Patrick went on one of their Kebab Krawls .  The walk was very reasonably priced at around 120 lira (or something like that --- I can't seem to find the receipt for this one) (about $60 USD) and included all of the food as they walked for about four hours through little Urfa, a small off-the-beaten path neighborhood in Istanbul.  Verdict: definitely worth it.  E-mail them and book it.  Don't wait.  Make this a priority on an Istanbul trip if you like meat (not so good for veggie eaters).

Where to eat meat in the Bodrum peninsula

We didn't order much *meat* per se on the Aegean Sea because seafood is the name of the game (more on seafood later).  But, Patrick has one great recommendation for doner kebab which is in Turgutreis town, the white and blue restaurant that is in the middle of the town, right next to the hairdresser that likes to use Twilight models on her window.  We don't know the name but it's hard to miss at lunch time because everyone in the city (including our landlord) comes to this kebab stand.  They style themselves as a borek shop and baklavaki but the baklava was awful and the borek merely passable.  The doner kebab is the reason to come here.

beyond sultanahmet

Sultanahmet by night

Sultanahmet at sunset

"Sultanahmet . . . it's like a big museum," Ceylan Zere, the Context Istanbul city manager tells us of the main tourist neighborhood in Istanbul.  "The rest of Istanbul is where people live."

The moment we enter Sultanahmet, we are transported into Touristland, a place where hawkers push us to buy carpets and Turkish delight, restaurants serve bland fare at ridiculous prices, and English speakers outnumber the Turkish ones.  But, away from Sultanahmet, we discover that Istanbul is a city of a thousand villages.  Each neighborhood is unique, distinct, and dissimilar from its neighbors, so to understand Istanbul, we walked . . . a lot . . . hearing and understanding stories about Istanbul's past and present.

The Galata Neighborhood

Vendor at the Galata market Galata area
Fish at Galata market Vendor at the Galata neighborhood

Scenes from the Galata market

We walk across the Galata bridge in the waning day's light, past the fishermen reeling in their lines, and away from the market where vendors showcase the Bosphorous-caught fish and vegetables trucked in from the countryside.  The Galata neighborhood has been many things: it was a fortified part of the city, held by the Genoese sailors; Armenian and German shopkeepers sold their metalworking in this area; the French high school and Greek Orthodox Churches were located here; and, for many years, the Galata area was the banking center of Istanbul.

Genoese wall

Galata Tower Galata area

Galata Tower; run-down buildings; church in the Galata area

But, then, as happens all too often in many cities, the Galata neighborhood started to slide downhill.  Beautiful buildings and monuments lost benefactors and turned to ruin.  As prices became cheaper, the artists began to move in, reclaiming this portion of the city for their own, as they recognized how close it stood to Istanbul's downtown area and main bazaar area.  Slowly, the Galata neighborhood became the arts and fashion center of Istanbul, and, now, though many streets are full of ruined building, it is easy to find street art (see the Santas hanging on the top picture above), high end fashion stores, great restaurants, and beautiful people enjoying Galata's charms.

Istlikal Street and Taksim Square

Istlikal Street

Istlikal Street Stuffed mussels seller
Istlikal Street Atlas Pasaji Istlikal Street

Views of Istlikal Street and the Taksim historic tram

Istlikal Street is 1,400 meters long and chockful of big malls, shops, and tourist vendors.  But, behind Istlikal Street's smooth exterior lies a turbulent history.  To understand a bit about Istlikal Street, you need to understand a bit about Turkish history.

Until the 1920s, Turkey was the base of the Ottoman Empire.  Istlikal Street at that time was the homebase for most European diplomats and ambassadors and many Armenians owned high-end stores along this street.  After the Allies defeated the Ottoman Empire in World War I and split up the Ottoman Empire, Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, defeated the Allies and formed the Republic of Turkey in 1923.  This Republic was an amazing accomplishment and Ataturk is to this day revered in the same way that George Washington is revered in the United States.

Ataturk and the young patriots made many huge changes to Turkey.  The new Republic was completely secular --- and, Turkey, today, is a completely secular nation.  As part of that secularization, all religious symbols in public places were banned, meaning that men and women could not wear crosses or cover their heads with head scarves or fezes and, even today, head scarves are not allowed in public universities and schools.  Ataturk also opened up Turkey to tourism and Istanbul became one of the most popular tourist cities in the world.

Hotel Hotel Londra Istanbul
Hotel Londres Hotel Londra Istanbul

Hotel de Londres, one of two hotels that the Orient Express passengers stayed in, and where Agatha Christie stayed

One of the other controversial changes the nationalists undertook involved the Armenians and the Greeks.  Though much could be said about the Ottoman Empire, they certainly encouraged a diverse population: in the 1890s, 50% of the population of present-day Turkey was non-Muslim.  Following the foundation of the Republic, all persons of Greek origin were asked to leave Turkey and go "back" to Greece, and the Turks were sent back to Turkey from Greece.  At the same time, Armenians were forced out of Turkey back into Armenia.  There's a lot of debate about how many Armenians died during this migration but, suffice it to say, it was a lot of people.  Today, only 1% of the population of Turkey are non-Muslims.

(This, by the way, is why Turkey is so adamant that the Armenian repatriatization wasn't a genocide: if Ataturk and the first revolutionaries committed such a heinous act as killing thousands of people simply because of their race, then the entire foundation of their republic is at risk.  For us Americans, this would be similar to someone claiming that George Washington brutally killed thousands of black slaves.)

Greek Orthodox Church near Istiklal Street

Cicek Pasaji
Book Bazaar Fashion stores on Istiklal Street

Greek Orthodox Church and walking through one of the underground malls in a Pasaji

So, what does this all have to do with Istlikal Street?  Well, as the Armenians were forced out of their storefronts, new storeowners came in, changing the entire character of this neighborhood.  What was once a primarily Armenian and Greek neighborhood took on a new and different tone, but vestiges of that former history is still to be found on Istlikal Street, in various tiny shops and stores.  There is even a leftover han , one of the communal inns used by traveling merchants during the Ottoman period and tiny arcades that once housed vendors and, now, are underground book bazaars and thrift stores, known only to the locals.

The amazing part is that all of this history is tucked away behind smooth street facades of McDonalds, Zaras, and shopping malls.

The Asian Side: Kadikoy and Uskudar

Views from Asian side

Views from Uskudar

The Asian side of Istanbul is largely ignored by tourists and there are many, many Istanbulites who will only stay on the European side and never cross the Bosphorous to the Asian side.  That's a shame because the Asian side has its own unique and beautiful character.


Uskudar street with its quaint homes

Uskudar on the Asian side is also known as Harem because the sultans often gave his mother, daughters, and other members of the imperial harem property or money as part of their salary.  The women of the harem frequently built huge mosques in Uskudar facing the Bosphorous because the property in Sultanahmet or Eminonu was reserved for mosques built by the sultan himself.  A large number of the Armenians and Greeks who live in Turkey live in the Uskudar area and it is easy to find Armenian churches, Greek Orthodox churches, and mosques on a single quaint street in the Uskudar area.

Pickled pine cones Dried eggplant
Green almonds Cheese wrapped in goat skin

Kadikoy market

Kadikoy is another neighborhood on the Asian side, reputed primarily for its excellent shopping.  The Kadikoy market is simply wonderful and sells everything from vegetables to dried eggplant for dolmas to cheese wrapped in goat skin (yes, that's cheese in that last picture.)  The famous Bagdat Caddesi in Kadikoy is a modern walking street lined with trendy stores and restaurants, perfect for a Sunday afternoon jaunt.  On the weekends, the beaches are packed with kids, dogs, and couples strolling hand in hand along the bright green park that meanders along the Bosphorous, with views onto the European side.

Sun setting over Hagia Sophia

Sun setting behind Hagia Sophia

And, when the sun sets over Sultanahmet, we don't feel like we're missing anything at all by spending our time in these other less frequented neighborhoods of Istanbul.


Susannah at Context Istanbul Ceylan Zere and bloggers
Context docent Context docent

Our Context Istanbul docents

While we spent a lot of time exploring Istanbul's neighborhoods on our own, we also visited Istanbul's neighborhoods with the docents at Context Travel. We went on four separate walks with them to explore Istanbul's neighborhoods (and one of those was a super fun tour with other bloggers), namely, the Cosmopolis walk on Istiklal Street , the Galata Nights walk , To Asia and Back Bosphorous walk , and the Markets of Istanbul walk.  Our favorites of the bunch were the Cosmopolis and the Galata Nights walks, both of which integrated history, food, and culture in two very neat areas of Istanbul (everything written about in this post came from the discussions with docents on these various walks).  I personally think that every new traveler to Istanbul should seriously consider one of these two walks to give a good orientation to the city and get grounded on how Turkey's long history has impacted its present culture.

* All of our walks with Context Travel were sponsored but, as always, every single opinion on this site is mine and mine alone (and sometimes Patrick gets a little bit of a say in what I'm going to write.)  If you're interested in why we accept sponsorships and how sponsorships impact this blog, head on over to this probably too long post all about making money blogging .

intersecting cultures at hagia sophia

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia from the water

We spent March in rural Bulgaria, living amongst sheepherders and vineyard workers.  We went weeks without speaking English and finding western cuisine.  The largest building in our village was the three stories high library and school.  We sped past donkey carts and Communist era automobiles and pushed our four wheel drive to its limit on what the Bulgarians claim are "roads." (More on Bulgaria later.)

And, then, in early April, we drove into Istanbul.

Views of the Blue Mosque from the river Hagia Sophia
Sulemaniye Mosque over ferryboat The Blue Mosque from the river

Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia up close, Sulemaniye Mosque, and Blue Mosque surrounded by Sultanahmet

Istanbul is dramatic.  The rounded roofs and pointed minarets of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Sulemaniye Mosque dominate the skyline of the historic center.  From afar, Hagia Sophia is the least impressive of these buildings --- faded brick with none of the blue and silver elegance of the Blue Mosque or the Sulemaniye Mosque --- and we wondered why Ceylan Zere, the city manager of Context Istanbul , insisted that we visit Hagia Sophia early on our trip.  But, we followed her advice and, on our second day in Istanbul, we took Context's Hagia Sophia Seminar (priced at 125 TRY or about $67.50 USD).

Ebru Context Guide Hippodrome
German fountain at the Hippodrome in Istanbul Mosaic at German fountain in Hippodrome Istanbul

Ebru Gokteke, our guide, and the obelisks and German fountain at the Hippodrome

Ebru Gokteke, our docent, explained that Sultanahmet --- the main tourist center of Istanbul and home to Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, and Hagia Sophia --- is essentially one giant history museum.  It was here in Sultanahmet that the remains of 34 shipwrecks were found from the 1st century B.C. and a Neolithic settlement, as well.  Mythically, this site has great importance because it is believed that the Oracle of Delphi told Greek settlers that they must live "across from the City of the Blind."  They arrived in modern-day Sultanahmet and realized that all of the Neolithic settlers were living on the modern-day Asian side of Istanbul, though the European side had better vantage points and resources for water.  Thus, they settled in the European side of Istanbul across from those who were too blind to see what the European side offered.

Cistern in Istanbul

Basilica Cisterns

In 330 A.D., Constantine conquered Byzantium and Constantinopolis became the new capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.  The Roman penchant for building big, BIG, and BIGGER things included the monumental obelisk at the Hippodrome in Istanbul which could seat 40,000 people for the chariot races, and the eerie Basilica Cistern that had the capacity to store about 100,000 tons of water --- enough drinking water to supply the entire city during a siege.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

But, their triumph was Hagia Sophia.  One of man's greatest architectural achievements, the Emperor Justinian built the Hagia Sophia to create a cathedral that would match the ancient Solomon's famous cathedral in 537 A.D.  When it was built, the Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world and, even today, it is the 4th largest church building in the world.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia mosaics

Hagia Sophia was built in the style of a Greek orthodox church with a portrait of Jesus at the center o the ceiling and angels in the four corners.  Beautiful golden mosaics depicting Christ and the Virgin Mary . . . though there is also one very freaky picture of the baby Jesus where he looks almost exactly like Chuckie (or maybe it's the other way around.)

Hagia Sophia

Islamic and Christian emblems at Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia became the golden standard for religious worship and, when the Turks and Islam took control of Istanbul in the 15th century, they converted Hagia Sophia into use for Islamic services.  The early Ottoman emperors revered the architecture of Hagia Sophia so much that originally they only covered the Christian iconography with drapes, but, later emperors covered the murals with plaster.

But, if imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the Ottomans could give the Romans no better praise than what followed: Hagia Sophia served as the architecture model for most of the other famous mosques in Istanbul, including the Blue Mosque and the Sulemaniye Mosque.

Hagia Sophia Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia Hagia Sophia

Interior of Hagia Sophia

In 1943, the Republic of Turkey converted Hagia Sophia into a museum and worked to uncover many of the Christian symbols, while retaining the Islamic iconography added to the structure.  Now, the building is part Christia and part Islamic, but wholly humbling in a beauty that transcends cultural and religious differences.


Ebru's tour through Hagia Sophia was one of our favorite Context walks in Istanbul because she brought the history of Istanbul alive and helped tell a story of a multi-cultural, multi-religious Istanbul that defined the rest of our stay in the city.  I highly recommend this tour to start off a few days' stay in Istanbul because she also helped explain a lot of the Islamic iconography that we saw when we visited other mosques in the city.

why take guided tours

Barcelona tour guide London tour guide Costa Rica tour guide British Museum tour guide
Chepecletas Yuki Giulio and us Jacques

Montage of tour guides

There's a lot of "this OR that" in the travel world: you can be a tourist OR a traveler, a fanny-pack-wearing cruise-goer OR a backpack-hefting vagabond.  But, in between, there's us . . . and I suspect many of you.

We are the folks in the middle --- the ones who believe that independent travel is better with a smattering of guided tours and that guided tours are better with a heap of independence.

We travel on our own and have ventured through five continents without any tour operators or travel planners.  We've only twice been on an organized tour group (once in the Outback because we couldn't find a rental car and once through southern Africa because of the expense of traveling independently.)  But, we frequently use tour guides.  In fact, we join at least one group tour in every single city we visit.  Before you lump us in with the fanny-pack-wearers, take at look at these six reasons why I think every independent traveler should consider taking guided tours:

Following the umbrella in Beijing

Following the umbrellas in Beijing

1.  A guided tour doesn't necessarily mean following around a woman with a red umbrella.

Yes, there are guided tours where you're walking around with an earset behind a woman holding a bright red umbrella.  But, that's not all guided tours.  In fact, though we've taken over 100 guided tours all across this world, we have NEVER followed a tour guide holding an umbrella (or a notepad or whatever) nor have we ever worn a headset to hear our tour guide speak.

Rafael Room in Vatican Museums

One of the Raphael rooms in the Vatican Museums

2.  A good tour guide enhances and simplifies vast and exhausting places.

Most major museums are simply exhausting.  I remember that the first time we went to the Vatican Museums, we spent about seven hours running in and out of rooms, listening frantically to our audio guides, and trying to figure out what it was that we were seeing.

Last year, we did things differently: we went with Gregory DiPippo, the brilliant docent with Context Rome , who simplified the entire Vatican Museums into one cohesive story about how Michaelangelo and Rafael imposed their views of a benevolent Christianity through their art.  (I still have to write about this tour but suffice it to say that you should jump at the chance to go on a tour with Gregory.  I would like to cart him around with me to every cathedral across the world.)  We left that tour feeling that though we saw less of the Vatican Museums than before, we actually understood what we saw.

at the Blue Mosque At the Blue Mosque

3.  A good tour guide bridges cultures.

Travel forces us to learn and understand other cultures, religions, and philosophies.  We discover much of those things by talking with locals and experiencing what the locals experience.  But, often, we are barred from a culture because of different languages, or shut out because people don't know how to talk to us.  Sometimes, we worry about asking "stupid" or "hurtful" questions.  That's where a good tour guide comes in.  When we came to Turkey, we wanted to understand how the Turkish view Islam and the Islamic Spring, but we didn't feel comfortable asking a local those questions.  The docents at Context Istanbul helped us bridge those gaps and, this week, I'll be writing about the interesting perspectives learned while on our walks with them.

Ceiling at V&A museum

V&A Museum, visited because recommended by a tour guide as their favorite museum in London

4.  A good tour guide is your new best friend in the city.

If we like a tour guide, we always pepper them with questions: what's their favorite restaurant, what's their best off-the-beaten path suggestions, how do you say "thank you" in the local language, and so on.  It's like having a best friend wherever you go.  We almost always ask the tour guides for their e-mail addresses and follow up with them (especially if they offer to give us further insights, which they often do.)

Us silhouettes

Silhouettes of our group at sunset in Namibia

5.  Meeting travelers is fun!

Because we mainly stay in vacation rentals, we don't get much of a chance to meet other travelers.  Tour groups are a great way to meet people with common interests and we've gotten great insights and restaurant recommendations from other travelers on tour groups.  We've also learned a lot about the strange and interesting ways that people travel simply by talking to folks in tour groups: for example, in Sofia, Bulgaria, I met a North Carolinian who had never left the United States until he decided to spend a year abroad working as a missionary in remote destinations.

Stonehenge at night

Stonehenge at sunset

6.  Tour groups get us into places we normally can't go.

Two of our all-time favorite guided tours took us into places that the average tourist doesn't get to see.  The fifteen person tour into the Necropolis of St. Peter's Basilica took us under the massive cathedral in Vatican City to see the humble beginnings of Christianity, where St. Peter was buried and careful Christians wrote graffiti on a plain brick wall to mark St. Peter's tomb.  Another favorite behind-the-scenes tour is the Inside the Circle Tour at Stonehenge , where we walked over the ropes and stood within the mystical circle of giant rocks at Stonehenge.  Amazing!

So, these are the six reasons why we take guided tours whenever we visit a new city.  What are your reasons for taking guided tours . . . or not taking guided tours?  Do you have a favorite tour?  (And, if so, please tell us because we'll bookmark it and try to take it when we are next in that city.)

* This year, Patrick and I are working with Context Travel to take and promote their tours all across Europe.  However, Context never asked me to write this post and we are only working with Context because we truly love their company and approach.  In fact, as we have worked with them across this year, I've been more and more impressed by the depth and breadth of their docents' knowledge.  In any event, as always, no matter who sponsors us, every single word on this blog is mine and mine alone (with a bit of input from Patrick.)

February 2012

museum hopping with context london
on history and future
February 1, 2012